Our latest book is about customers, experiences and soul. These are not three easily understood discrete entities which we can simply sum together. We need to explore what we mean by these terms, and how they come together to help us move beyond designing great customer experiences, to be able to offer something deeper – customer experiences with soul.
A little over twenty years ago an approach called ‘designing the customer experience’ was developed at the Human Factors department of BT Laboratories in Ipswich. In the early 1990s the focus was on human-computer interaction, a discipline mostly based in university research departments, with little connection to marketing departments, product managers, service centres and business strategists.
The process ‘designing the customer experience’ was created to reposition Human Factors and user-centred design at the very heart of the product life-cycle within organisations, thus helping to lay the groundwork for the development of design thinking, service design, customer journey mapping and concepts such as customer success.
Two decades later we felt the need to transcend what have now become well-defined approaches and definitions of customer experience, to help companies understand why their offerings are no longer resonating with people, where this deep source of a lack of authenticity, coherence and values comes from, and how to develop a profound understanding of the lived experience of every single person whose lives our organisations touch. This approach is rarely spoken about in business, but those who take on board what is being said, and who can develop the maturity and bravery to disrupt their own mental models of how things have to be, will find that they have the resources to create an entire new way of being for their businesses, a way of being which is soulful.
In the last twenty years two significant trends have emerged which have changed the business landscape dramatically and which now require businesses and organisations to shift their attention from offering great customer experiences to customer experiences with soul. The first trend, which needs little explanation, is the explosion in our use of mobile and internet technologies which have opened up many new ways for consumers to research, connect and interact with businesses, resulting in a shift in power away from marketing campaigns and towards consumer activists, ambassadors and critics. This has led to advances in the way in which we think about and design customer journeys, developing tools such as customer journey maps which visualise in graphs and grids the many different touchpoints that customers have.
The second trend relates not to technology, but to a consumer-led paradigm shift in attitudes and beliefs not just in Generation Y and Millennials, but across all age groups as people seek to reconnect authentically to other people and to nature. Consumers are seeking out experiences rather than ever greater consumption, desiring a more dignified life where work is more meaningful, lives are happier, and relationships with businesses and brands are fully authentic, aligned with their own personal missions, values and beliefs. People today are seeking more alignment, more engagement, more connectivity, more honesty and more transparency from the companies and organisations they chose to do business with. This is now causing a crisis in companies in terms of leadership, management, sales and results as they fail to connect with their customers and clients.
Around the world there is a growing awareness of the destructive nature of current economic paradigms based on fragmentation, where powerful nations aim to dominate weaker nations rich in natural resources. The most enlightened businesses are now transforming their life-destroying business models to ones which are life-enhancing and which regenerate natural ecosystems and local economies. The concept of customer experiences with soul radically transforms our attention from a focus on interactions that individual people have with products and services, to the quality of experience of communities and the richness of the quality of their lives.
What this boils down to is a crisis of essence and a crisis of values. It is not a crisis of coherence since there are many companies operating from traditional mindsets and values which are coherent, but not authentic. Companies are confusing emotion-driven marketing campaigns which still focus on the products and services, with authentic missions which inspire people with a higher purpose beyond the core offering. This new business paradigm places a huge emphasis on business culture, as the companies which will thrive in the twenty first century will be transparent, understanding that internal equals external, meaning that every single action they carry out will constitute marketing.
In the new business paradigm you cannot design the customer experience because you are the customer experience, and so in order to understand the customer experience, you have to understand what it means to be. This is the great question of ‘being’. While this may sound like a philosophical question of little relevance to leaders, as a business begins to experience early success and starts to grow, sometimes exponentially, the sense of who we are can often become lost and confused, especially as new recruits join who were not present at the inception and who do not necessarily live the mission and vision.
In order to help businesses understand this question of being, we created the holonomic circle, a tool designed to help everyone across an organisation think about the customer experience of their offerings, and all those different aspects which need to be considered in order to be able to reach that point where the customer experience has soul. While we are perfectly willing to describe a corporate culture as soul-destroying, when we turn this concept around and ask if a company can have soul, the question can be particularly unsettling for many, especially if we leave the concept of soul undefined.
The word ‘soul’ has many different meanings and connotations. While it is common to hear the claim in business of “putting our heart and soul” into our work, it is quite valid to ask the question of whether or not it is possible for a customer experience to have soul, or to put it another way, if it is possible to experience soul in a transaction?
An experience has soul when one soul recognises another soul. For this reason this book reveals the hidden qualities of experience which are rarely spoken about in a business context. Emotions play an extremely significant role in decision-making; they can cloud our judgements and can lead us to decisions which later we can come to regret, allowing less scrupulous businesses to manipulate our emotions in the buying process. But when we strip away thinking and we strip away emotion we are left with feeling, through which when combined with an intuitive understanding of a phenomenon such as a brand, a product, or an experience of a representative of an organisation, we achieve a deeper sense of connection with the essence of that phenomenon.
The soul in customer experiences with soul is the essence of a business and we encounter the essence through each and every part, be it product, service, advertisement, interface or personal interaction we have with the organisation. For this reason the term ‘customer experience’ refers not only to the interaction our paying customers have with our products, services and brands, but also to every single interaction inside the business between colleagues, employees, suppliers, shareholders and contractors, and every interaction between those who work for a business and who are representing the business, and every person who comes into contact with the business.
Every single one of us has our own personal customer experience which we project and for which we have to take full responsibility. For this reason, before we explore the holonomic circle in detail, we have to explore matters relating to the transition of consciousness. The reason is that if we are stuck in ego, and if we have not developed a sense of human values, no matter how worthy our purpose there is still a danger that archetypal behaviours such as being blinkered, predatory, selfish and elitist will sabotage our efforts.
More often than not, cognitive dissonance protects people with these types of behaviours. Many people are unable to believe that leaders and gurus with such worthy aims could ever act in ways which are not congruent with their stated missions and purposes in life. While this may sound a little melodramatic, it is a sad fact that many places of work are disheartening environments to be in, and this is exacerbated by managers and leaders who may be stuck in their individual egos and therefore simply unable to ascertain just how their speech, actions and non-verbal behaviours are being communicated and picked up by those around them.
While technology has given us untold abilities to interact across traditional boundaries, the networks we develop are not going to be authentic and therefore sustainable without people who have an expanded level of consciousness. Discernment is required as never before in an age of personal branding, in order that we do not accidentally find ourselves being a part of a ‘knotwork’ – a network with ego – which can be more cliques than authentic networks of people working towards a higher purpose for the good of all.
The journey from where we are now to developing customer experiences with soul starts with ourselves and our relationships with those immediately around us. If we can understand and heal these broken and inauthentic relationships, then we can start to rediscover trust, values and what it means to genuinely share and co-create whatever we are attempting to envision, innovate and bring into this world. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) was concerned with developing what he called “practical philosophy” or ‘praxis’ which he related to “the totality of our practical life, all our human action and behaviour, the self-adaption of the human being as a whole in this world” as well as “one’s politics, political advising and consulting, and our passing of laws”.
As members of humanity sharing this planet with our fellow human beings and all other forms of life, we need to develop ethics to guide us towards living together harmoniously. The great problem is that when we are born we do not receive instructions for acting ethically in the same way in which we can be given instructions for the use of a tool. Each one of us has to reach an understanding about a given situation, which means reaching an understanding with ourselves. Reaching an understanding is not achieved by following a scientific methodology; we have to interpret our situations and we reach an understanding through conversation and dialogue.
The holonomic circle is a framework we created to lead conversations into an understanding of customer experiences with soul. At the centre is ‘the trinity’, which is where authenticity is described as the maximum coherence between what a person says, what they mean, and what they do. The trinity equally applies to any group, team, organisation, business, ecosystem, and can include cities, states, countries and indeed movements.
Coherence is a quality which can run throughout whole organisations, both internally and externally, and across supply chains, business ecosystems the communities with which the person or entity interacts. We encounter counterfeit purposes when what the person or group says, what the person or group means and what the person or group does fail to coalesce as a unified whole.
The middle level of the holonomic circle helps us to think about those factors which underlie our tools and techniques, and to help us understand why they sometimes work and why at times they do not. This layer is not about telling you which tools and techniques to use. It is about exploring the underlying foundations behind the tools and techniques being used, and seeing which principles need to be operating in order for the tools and techniques to become more effective. What is often missing from the application of tools and techniques is an appreciation of systems as a whole.
In our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, we take an approach whereby the whole is seen as coming to presence through the parts. The whole is not the sum of the parts, and neither is the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The whole is not a thing which acts as some kind of super-part, and neither can it be imposed on the parts. An authentic whole can only be encountered through the way in which it expresses itself through each part. If there is no conceptualisation of the whole system, and only a view on results with businesses having conflicting targets across competing departments, an organisation as a whole loses energy, it is not sustainable in the long term and will never manage to achieve coherent and soulful customer experiences.
Gadamer described his philosophy as the art of reaching an understanding – either of some thing or with someone. This reaching of an understanding is always an interpretation, which happens in conversation, in dialogue. It is for this reason that the outer circle of the holonomic circle contains the transcendentals, a guiding set of interwoven ideas which we can use to explore and talk about our products and services, our customer experience.
Understanding the truth of experience requires curiosity, questioning and an ability to interweave the transcendentals into each other. If we really are to understand customer experiences, and understand how customers are interpreting our products, services and brands, we need to explore the way in which language and reality belong together; how we participate in reality and interpret the world.
The ‘truth’ is something we can never definitively arrive at, due to the limitations of language. But through authentic dialogue, humility and an expanded level of consciousness we can remain open to an ever-changing vista of viewpoints and interpretations where beauty, truth and goodness all belong together within our experience.
Extract taken from Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design, Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2017: Holonomics Publishing, London)
Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education, a strategy and innovation consultancy based in São Paulo whose mission is to help organisations to implement great customer experiences, powerful and effective strategies, and develop purposeful, meaningful and sustainable brands. He is the co-author of Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter and his research examines how the dynamic conception of wholeness in hermeneutics and phenomenology can deepen our thinking on innovation, customer experience design and the circular economy.